Family Protects Against Negative Stress

Image Source: The New York Times

Jacob and Noah Muthler are two brothers from Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania who personify a phenomenon that this weekend’s New York Times Magazine addressed– why can some children take stress in stride while others crumble?

The article highlights the increasing stress that children face, especially because of standardized testing. “The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial.”

As a test approaches, Noah panics. According to his mother, “he was crying in my arms the night before the test, saying: ‘I’m not ready, Mom. They didn’t teach us everything that will be on the test.’ ” The night before the examination, Noah couldn’t sleep; the only way he would go back to bed is if his mother lay with him.

His brother, Jacob, however seems un-phased by the stress; in fact, he is so unnerved by taking the standardized test that his mother started to worry that he didn’t care about his performance.

It turns out, reactions to stress are partially genetic.  An enzyme responsible for removing dopamine from the brain can affect a person’s ability to cope with stress. Stress floods your brain with dopamine and how quickly the enzyme is able to rid your brain of the excess dopamine determines a child’s natural ability to handle stress. Jacob and Noah prove that even in a family of brothers, the speed of this enzyme can be drastically different.

Still, for those with a slow moving enzyme, all is not lost. Researchers have shown that stress does not always have to be a bad thing.  Jeremy Jamieson, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, believes that people’s negative labeling of stress is the detriment – not the stress itself.

Jamieson believes that if stress is harnessed and viewed as a motivating factor, it can actually improve performance. Jamieson cites the performance of athletes and that the stress they feel before a game fuels their competitive edge.

Maybe Jamieson is on to something; however, for many children this positive outlook on stress is not natural and will need to be coached. For kids like Noah that coach is his mom. She is the one who tells him that the test is no big deal; she reframes it as an opportunity to display his intelligence and acumen, both of which he has proven at school as a student in the gifted and talented program.  And for those times when that perspective isn’t enough to calm him, it’s Noah’s mom who rubs his back and lays with him so he’ll fall back asleep.

What the Times article did not address the issue of children who may not have the appropriate support structures, including those in foster and congregate care and individuals who spend their entire childhood in institutions. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has concluded that in regards to stress, when “buffering relationships are unavailable to the child, the result can be damaged, weakened systems and brain architecture, with lifelong repercussions.”

Some of our most vulnerable children – those living outside of family care who do not have a parent to coach them through stress – are the same children who likely have so much more to worry about: Will I ever be adopted? If I change foster care placements, will I have to change schools as well? Who will help me with my homework? Where are my siblings living and when can I see them again?

Fortunately for Noah, his mom found a solution to rid him of his stress. He will opt out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment “using a broad religious and ethical exemption.” Since finding out that he won’t be taking the test, Noah has performed better in school and now looks forward to class.

But for those kids who don’t have a parent to depend on, most of them will be forced to internalize their stress without the benefit of having mom or dad to rub their back and tell them that everything will be okay.

The stress that Noah experiences from standardized testing is legitimate and powerful; no one can dispute that.  But this article neglects to address how those stress-prone children like Noah fare when don’t have an established support system like his.

And  having a safe, loving, permanent family should not be something that any child should ever have to stress about.

Op-Ed on Haiti’s Orphans from CCAI’S Executive Director

Orphan Children of Haiti Deserve a Future

Since last week’s devastating earthquake, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) has been engaged in helping Members of Congress in developing an appropriate response to the immediate and long term needs of Haiti’s orphaned children.   Within hours of this tragedy, Congressional offices were flooded with offers of help for orphans and requests for media interviews on this subject have been unending. As I watch all of this unfold, I find myself with mixed emotions.  On one hand, I am happy to see the world so keenly focused on the needs of orphan children.   On the other, I am perplexed as to why it has to take a natural disaster for the world to focus on a problem that has existed for some time.  As has been reported, there were 380,000 orphans in Haiti when the earthquake occurred (UNICEF, 2007).   To put that into perspective, that is a population higher than that of Pittsburgh.  A small portion of these children found refuge in the country’s 184 licensed orphanages, while the vast majority was condemned to a life on the streets.  How they were orphaned is also no mystery.  Like in so many other places, it was poverty, war, disease and cultural norms, which forced their families to abandon them.   And these conditions are only going to be made worse by recent events.

When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast nearly five years ago, our country learned many lessons.  One thing we learned was that after a disaster of this magnitude you can do one of two things.  You can spend your time and resources to rebuild a place to be the same as it was before or you can use the opportunity to begin anew.  Take for example the public education system in New Orleans.   In the five years since the storm, Louisiana leaders have used the combination of an unprecedented level of national investment, innovative best practices, and reform minded leadership to put New Orleans public schools on track to become the best in our Nation.

As a global community, we have the same choice here.  We can go about making plans to provide protection to orphan children in temporary shelters until they can be returned to their orphanages, or worse the streets, or we can take the recent outpouring of international support and use it to begin anew.  Working together, we can help the people of Haiti to develop a child welfare system in which Haitian children are being raised in safe, loving and permanent families, not by institutions.  Such a system could be built upon international best practices in preserving families, providing foster care, as well as promoting domestic and international adoption.

Surely, plans to rebuild the physical infrastructure of Haiti will not call for rebuilding the concrete on concrete buildings that all but folded from the quake.  No doubt, they will call for the buildings to be rebuilt using the latest earthquake-proof technology.  The orphans of Haiti need and deserve this same forward thinking approach. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that the only structures that need our help in rebuilding are physical.

Kathleen Strottman is the Executive Director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute(CCAI), nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the millions of children around the world in need of permanent, safe, and loving homes and to eliminating the barriers that hinder these children from realizing their basic right of a family. Kathleen comes to this role after serving nearly 8 years on staff for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA)